Friday, December 7, 2012

The Tyranny of Freedom, the Persistence of Structure

We all yearn for freedom, be it financial, political, emotional or otherwise, we forever strive to be the masters of our own destiny. We are told freedom is the optimal condition for humanity to exist in, but is it? Consider some of those who have come closest to living beyond societal or familial constraints. I'm speaking of the most wealthy and powerful. Initially, their freedom appears a good thing, but at some asymptotic point where they are converging on almost total free will and absolute independence from outside control, they begin being seduced by their own darkest desires and self-destruction soon follows. If "...absolute power corrupts absolutely" what effect does complete freedom from boundaries erected by the culture, institution or family have on the individual?
Not long ago, I watched an excellent documentary on Hulu called Shadow Billionaire. It's subject was Larry Hillblom, the man who co-founded the international transport service, DHL. A wizard in organization, Hillblom was largely responsible for breaking up the monopoly held by the US Postal Service in package delivery. I felt a special kind of kinship with Mr Hillblom as we both attended the same tiny, small town high school and graduated from the same modest, central valley college in California, albeit 17 years apart. So it was with some sadness that I watched his rags to riches story that ultimately culminated in his submission to his darkest desires. This behavior continued to have repercussions long after his demise in the form of several illegitimate offspring who laid claim to his estate. With a degree of financial, political and societal freedom that most of us will never know, Hillblom not only destroyed himself, but the empire he helped to establish by surrendering to his darkest desires and denying the families he created.


Ever since seeing Serge and Jane's little girl in the François Truffaut penned story, La petite voleuse (The Little Thief)I've been hooked, and over the years, she's become my favorite actor, bar none. Soft-spoken, with doe eyes and long, gazelle-like limbs, Charlotte Gainsbourg doesn't appear to be a tough, iron-willed, risk taker but she's proved herself exactly that over the past two decades with film roles that range from the most avant garde, like Lemming, Antichrist and The Science of Sleep to classics like Jane Eyre and Les Miserables. Working with varied, artistically adept directors, everyone from long time partner Yvan Attal to Franco Zeffirelli, she's currently pulling the hat trick with her third Lars von Trier movie in the past four years. In addition, she's released three musical albums to critical acclaim and speaks flawless French and English. And if that's not enough, on the personal front, she had her third child in 2011 at age 39 after bouncing back from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2007. Did I mention she was tough?


SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains spoilers bigger than this car's for both The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane and The Cement Garden.

In Laird Koenig's novel The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, a teenage girl goes to great lengths to maintain her freedom and independence. The evil in the story comes from characters both outside and within her family attempting to control the girl and manipulate her for their own corrupt desires or agendas. The little girl, Rynn, wishes only to be the master of her own fate and is not corrupted by her freedom, but does kill to defend it as the absence of family makes her vulnerable to various adult predators. The Koenig novel is kind of an independence manifesto that could apply to the underaged, women or really any oppressed minority. Along with its film adaptation, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane would make a great companion piece to Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden where the child protagonists find themselves exploring their own independence when they too suddenly become free from adult authority. The two stories are an odd reflection of each other in the striking plot parallels that occur in each. Both have dead mothers in the cellar, dead fathers elsewhere and willful kids left alone to fend for themselves. Theme, setting and character-wise, however, the stories couldn't be further apart. Koenig's novel speaks to the potential abuse the powerless must struggle with, whereas McEwan's novel concerns not only the corrupting aspects of absolute freedom, but the persistence of structure, in this case family, which always seems to reassert itself. 

Ian McEwan's novel was faithfully adapted into a film by writer/director Andrew Birkin in 1994. The Cement Garden is set in an aging cinder block tract house surrounded by abandoned, crumbling structures in a lower middle class section of London. A family of six live in the house including the middle-aged mother and father, eldest, 17-year old daughter, Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), 15-year old son Jack (Andrew Robertson), 13-year old Sue (Alice Coulthard) and youngest son Tom (Ned Birkin). Early on, both parents die of natural causes leaving the children on their own. To avoid the possibility of being broken up, they decide not to inform the authorities and encase their mother in cement in a basement locker.

Not long after their mother's death, a subtle entropy ensues and the family structure begins to break down. There's some nice imagery used by Birkin to show this slow disintegration including piles of unwashed dishes in the kitchen, broken masonry around the house and an ever scrungier Jack who ceases bathing. With the absence of authority, the four children begin acting out their heretofore hidden and questionable desires. Baby of the family, Tom, is tired of being a boy, and with the help and encouragement of his sisters, begins dressing as a girl. Jack, who is already a typical, taciturn, self-centered, testosterone-encumbered, onanistic, teenage boy, retreats even further into his self-absorbtion and fantasies. He is also obviously attracted to older sister, Julie, but she has only disdain for him initially. Julie herself begins an inappropriate relationship with a 33-year old, slick, upper class, manager-type, named Derek, who drives a sporty red car.

At a certain point, either family structure begins to reassert itself, or it simply implodes, I haven't really been able to figure out the ending to this day. I do know that Jack's transformation near the end plays a big role as does Julie's power sharing. Nonetheless, I think that both characters' actions can be interpreted as either defending or reestablishing the family structure. In the novel, Jack challenges Julie in a game of housecleaning. This simple act symbolically reverses the entropy and structural breakdown that has taken place reestablishing order in the house. I much prefer this device than the movie's in which Jack runs around naked in a rainstorm. The latter is more cinematic, but the former just makes more practical sense, although I guess both can be seen as a cleansing of sorts. Julie ultimately shuts out her older boyfriend Derek, who wants to be part of the family, in favor of Jack who obviously is family. This action further reestablishes and strengthens the family's structure (symbolically anyway, I wouldn't recommend sleeping with your sibling as a way to improve family relations). This is foreshadowed quite nicely earlier in the film when Jack finds little brother Tom dressed as a girl playing  "house" with one of his mates. Tom explains that sometimes he and his friend are pretending to be Derek and Julie, sometimes they are Jack and Julie. Jack realizes he's not only being cast in the father/husband role for the first time, but is a legitimate rival of Derek's.

Subsequently, Jack begins assuming the role of paternal protector by lying about the contents of the basement locker to Derek, even using one of his father's phrases to close out the conversation. It's at this point that Julie also begins to close ranks as well, siding with Jack and turning against Derek. Tom inadvertently spills the beans to Derek, but by then, the family has already reconstituted itself and Derek and the outside world become irrelevant. The last shot of the film, which is remarkably beautiful, is of Jack and Julie sleeping naked, entangled in each other post-coitus, while the blue strobe of a police car illuminates the bedroom.

In the novel, McEwan uses the phrase "still and fixed" no less than three times in describing the environment, or at least, Jack's impression of it. Andrew Birkin's direction picks up on that description with carefully framed still shots of the house, the characters and the surrounding desolate area. This helps amplify the bleakness described in the novel, and gives the film a strange, decaying beauty. This state of decay is further enhanced by the pale, almost sickly, bleached out green and beige color palette that is ubiquitous throughout the movie.

The original score for the film was Ed Shearmur's first crack at composing and it's quite good chamber music that comes in during bridge scenes and at the end but is used with restraint by Birkin as the dramatic scenes need little more to connect with the viewer.

The acting is outstanding, especially that of Gainsbourg and Robertson who carry most of the scenes and have to do a lot of emotionally raw stuff. Their sibling love/hate relationship feels very authentic with all of its arguments and power plays. One example that demonstrates this sibling rivalry early on in the film occurs when Gainsbourg's Julie basically accuses Jack of being self-centered, Jack replies, "If people really like me, they'll take me as I am" to which Julie, after a beautifully pregnant pause, responds simply and icily, "If". This was Gainsbourg's first English-speaking role and she absolutely knocks it out of the ball park. Her character is intimidating, beautiful and more than a little manipulative and Gainsbourg nails her in a quite subtle fashion. In the novel, McEwan describes her beauty as scary to Jack, and this aspect is brought to the screen in a very understated way by Gainsbourg. Every move her character makes in the film seems confident and un-self conscious. 

I don't know whether it was by design or serendipity that the inexperienced Robertson was cast opposite of Gainsbourg, but he acquits himself well in a role where he has to, among other uncomfortable things, pretend to masturbate while looking at himself in the mirror. He seems genuinely uncomfortable around Gainsbourg, up until the end, which suits the character perfectly. Since Jack is ultimately the central character (he's the narrator in the book), the movie wouldn't have worked without a believable performance from Robertson. The other two kids are also excellent representations of the novel's characters.

I don't think there are any weaknesses to the film, although it is intentionally plodding which may put some people off. It is an extremely faithful representation of the novel with only a few minor changes. I'm very surprised Burkin hasn't directed since this picture, though he continues to write, as he is an exceptionally talented director. It is nice to see his niece, Charlotte, continuing to be rewarded in the form of ever more risky and avant garde roles which arguably began with Julie in The Cement Garden.

Finally, I like the thematic notion that there are naturally occurring, freedom-limiting structural entities like family that can create order out of chaos. Too much freedom, as someone like Larry Hillbom might conclude, is not necessarily a healthy thing. We need certain institutions in place to keep some semblance of order and cleanliness even if, or especially if, it puts limits on our freedom and desires.

Final Score 8.75/10

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Passage to Agatha

Much like Laxmi Chhaya's infectious dancing to Mohammed Rafi's, Jaan Pehechaan Ho, many Bollywood films tend to be bizarre, silly, surreal, manic and all over the place, stylistically speaking. At the same time, they are loaded with energy, fun, and are endlessly entertaining even when they make no sense whatsoever. The incredibly uneven films may give one tonal whiplash, but it's an enjoyably sustained type of injury. So with neck-brace in hand, I decided to check out one I had been meaning to see for a long time.

While researching my post back in July concerning the five theatrical adaptations of Agatha Christie's novel, And Then There Were None,  I was reminded of the 1965 Bollywood film Gumnaam which was said to bare a striking story resemblance to the classic murder mystery. I did not include it among the five adaptations reviewed at that time because I felt sure it would contain widely disparate elements and be it's own odd conglomeration of genres and tones giving it a uniqueness deserving of its own examination.

It turned out, I was correct. After viewing the film, I realized there was no fair way to compare it to the other adaptations. It wasn't a case of apples and oranges, more like apples and unicycles. The movie did contain plot elements that were direct boosts from the Christie novel in that there is a group of people who are left on an island and sentenced to death for murder by an unknown accuser. There is also a love story between the leads and a key red herring, but the similarities mostly end there. It's not just the half dozen songs that make it a thing of its own, but the wild genre jumping from noir to musical to mystery to horror to comedy to thriller that is typical of many Bollywood films. This ever-changing aspect will either delight or frustrate viewers, but makes it all but impossible to compare to its counterparts as its ultimately a unique product aimed at its own unique market. Personally, I love the sheer audacity of attempting to pack so many dissimilar elements into one film and found myself watching Gumnaam with my jaw on the floor but still smiling all the while.

The film's prologue begins in a very noir-ish manner with a mysterious man on a balcony engineering the hit and run death of a man named Sohanlal on the street below. The mystery man then begins making phone calls to various people in what is obviously a plan to get a hold of the victim's estate. While in the midst of these calls, another mysterious man enters the room and guns the first down. While confounding, this turn effectively plunges the viewer into the story and the opening credits which involve a nighttime drive through the city ending at a nightclub.

We then enter the Princess Club where "Ted Lyons & His Cubs" (Mohammed Rafi) are playing Jaan Pehechaan Ho with Laxmi Chhaya going stark raving bonkers on the dance floor. This is hands down the best song in the feature and endlessly fun. If it appears familiar to western viewers, it's because Terry Zwigoff used it in the opening of Ghost World with Thora Birch's Enid mimicking the moves of Chhaya while the movie played on her TV. It was also recently used by Heineken in an ad to sell their suds. It's difficult and rare for something from Bollywood to make its way into the American culture, but this song and dance number's charm is something that cannot be ignored. The nightclub setting is not only a good excuse for the musical interlude but provides pretext for the subsequent gathering in the form of a vacation giveaway to celebrate the club's "Silver Jubilee." Seven winners of a holiday trip are selected by the club's MC and the audience meets each in turn. Among the group are Asha (Nanda), who is the niece of the original murder victim, Rakesh (Pran), a boozing barrister, and Miss Kitty (Helen), a sexy ingenue who enjoys the company of those who drink more than drinking herself as she later explains.

The story then cuts to the seven winners on board a DC-8 winging to their holiday destination. Complications ensue, however, when the aircraft apparently develops engine trouble and has to set down on a remote island for repairs. The group, along with the co-pilot Anand (Manoj Kumar), then go for a walk, at which point, the plane takes off stranding them all. As they search the island they begin hearing the ethereal voice of Lata Mangeshkar singing the spooky song Gumnaam Hai Koi. It may not be the best song in the film, but it does provide a spooky atmosphere that reappears throughout the story.

The group eventually discovers an estate complete with a goofy, but accommodating, butler played by Mehmood. 
The Christie aspect of the story then kicks in with the group being accused of murder followed by characters being killed off one by one. Romance, comedy and musical numbers also ensue, so much so, that the mystery and murder aspects almost take a back seat to the fun and frivolity. I do not exaggerate when I say that for every murder that takes place, a happy-go-lucky song occurs. But this is s.o.p. in Bollywood filmmaking which takes standard cinematic rules concerning tone and pacing and happily chucks them right out the window. I actually like this kind of loopiness which has an innocent and unique charm all its own. And the remaining songs in Gumnaam are pretty darned good and quite entertaining in their own right. In particular, there is a fantasy sequence song, Hum Kaale Hai To Kya Hua featuring Helen and Mehmood (again sung by Mohammed Rafi), that's easily my second favorite production in the movie. Before this number, Mehmood's over the top comedy was really getting on my last nerve, but I warmed to him considerably subsequent to this cheeky performance.

Helen has some very very fluid dance skills as she effortlessly shows when zipping down a huge stair case in heels. She's involved in three musical numbers, but really shines in this one thanks in part to the elaborate sets, her three costume changes and Mehmood's antics. She also shows off her comic chops in a later number she performs with Nanda that's kind of an ode to drunkeness called Peeke Hum Tum Jo Chale.

I actually preferred Helen's saucy bad girl, Miss Kitty, to Nanda's standard damsel in distress, Asha. In fact, the lead characters (and romantic bait), Anand and Asha, felt pretty generic as did their musical numbers together, although I did admire one which was performed in tsunami-like conditions and had to be a tough go for the two leads to execute without laughter or irritation at the elements.

Besides the rather lackluster lead couple, there were a number a few problems with the film outside of the obvious structural one caused by the merging of murder mystery and musical. The biggest issue was lack of character development amongst some of the secondary characters. For example, I never did understand how Mister Dharamdas (Dhumal) was related to the story, or even who he was, or what he did for a living. He wore a safari hat, carried around poison, and whined a lot. That's about as much as I got from his character. The other characters' presence were ultimately explained or could be intuited, but Dharamdas was an unintentional and frustrating enigma.

More on the nitpicking side, but it was nevertheless a big irritant for me, was Mehmood's Hitler mustache. It was obviously done for comic purposes and is even joked about in those terms later in the film, but it really annoyed me to no end. Charlie Chaplin got away with it because he was outright mocking Hitler, but as a comedy prop, it's a massive distraction and an epic fail. Similarly, Manoj Kumar's red hat did nothing for me, but at least it wasn't worn by a former dictator, it's just a goofy, horrible fashion choice on its own.

Finally, the end of the film went on forever, in part, due to an information dump of epic proportions which drags here-to-fore unmentioned characters into the story by way of the killer's motivation. It's a long-winded, Scooby-Doo explanation and reveal that were just not necessary and slow an already long climatic scene down even further. In fact, the whole Agatha Christie aspect to the film only served to slow it down with unneeded ancillary characters and plot. The movie probably would have been better served if it had been some kind of caper film or haunted house story rather than being an elaborate murder mystery. As a musical, I enjoyed it very much, but as a suspense thriller, I found it somewhat ponderous and hazy.

Score 6.75/10

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Soul Selling Mermaid

Once upon a time, there was a boy, a girl and a turtle...

Is she a poem of the sea
A sailor's reverie
A shadow of the deep
And if I doubt that she is real
then what is it I feel
that makes me so in love
Have I imagined holding her
Was it a dream my loving her
Still feel the warmth of kissing her
I'll spend my lifetime missing her

-Jules Bass

The haunting song, Jennie, and the beautiful shot of Connie Sellecca framed in a natural archway provide a potent opening to the wildly muddled, yet unforgettable, made-for-TV fairy tale from 1978 known as The Bermuda Depths.

Despite having grown up in the 70's and being a fervent made-for-TV movie acolyte, I somehow missed this odd Rankin/Bass & Tsuburaya co-production until Warner Archives released it a few years ago. Those who were awed by the movie as youngsters will testify to its strange, enduring quality. Having come upon the odd amalgamation of science fiction, fantasy and fairy tale 30 years late, I couldn't help but notice the numerous intrinsic flaws in the production, yet I was still as mesmerized as any 10-year old experiencing the movie for the first time. There are basically five elements that not only help the film in overcoming its multitude of cinematic sins, but actually make it a memorable, haunting piece.

1. The Song
Without a doubt, the Jules Bass composed song Jennie is the most valuable thing in the film. Used in conjunction with the opening credits and underwater establishing shots of Connie Sellecca swimming around the real Bermuda depths, the song is a beautiful, haunting, almost noir-sh composition that immediately hooks one in. Bits of it are subsequently used throughout the film to evoke Sellecca's character and the melody continues to work its magic for the duration of the story. If not for the song, the film would be crippled with a substantial loss of atmosphere.

2. The Bermuda Location 
Although it was only partially filmed on location, some of the shots, like a sunken ship's cannon and a bird's eye view of the city are terrific. Without these kinds of atmospheric shots, the film would have lost all sense of place and felt very studio-bound.

3. The Historical Fairy Tale
Jennie Haniver is a name that refers to a fabricated mermaid fashioned from a monkey's corpse and headless fish, or a dried and altered skate or ray. 

However, there is also a legend involving a woman named Jennie Haniver who lived in the early 18th century and ran off to Bermuda to escape an arranged marriage. She was subsequently found by her intended, but was lost at sea on the trip back. Her ghost was said to have later been seen haunting the area. This legend is used quite well in The Bermuda Depths as it sets up Connie Sellecca's Jennie as a spoiled, vain, rich girl who upon seeing her inevitable demise, disregards her fellow shipmates and makes a pact with an unknown power to live forever thus retaining her youth and beauty. The pact works, but the catch is, she must live in the ocean for eternity. This is a really nice twist on the legend, and it's delivered very quickly and efficiently in a flashback scene. 

4. The Underlying Theme
In a way, this film is kind of a serious romance for dudes. Every guy can identify with wanting to meet the adult version of that little girl he had his first childhood crush on. This film delivers that dream but as a cautionary tale about obsession. The theme not only resides in the lead character Magnus (Leigh McCloskey) who is obsessed with Jennie, but in his pals Eric and Dr. Paulis, who are hunting an oversized see creature (hello Herman Melville). Jennie, of course, has her own obsession with remaining forever young and pretty. Interestingly, the only character to make it through the film unscathed is the one that learns to let go. Pretty heady stuff from the Rankin/Bass boys, and it boosts the film from just an amusing oddity to something with a little more, well, depth.

5. Captain Carl

Yep, Carl Weathers. One thing the film would really lack without Apollo Creed is a charismatic actor. Sellecca is more mysterious than charismatic, McCloskey is kind of a pouty bitch, and Burl Ives is, well, Burl Ives - and unfortunately, being a cranky, old coot does not engender magnetism. Even though the script, director and fellow actors occasionally hang him out to dry, Weathers still comes armed with both that winning smile and the world's largest spear gun. How can you not love the man?

But for all its strengths, the film is riddled with flaws. Make no mistake, just like 1/3 of the IMDb users who rated this film a 10, I really love it. However, there are a multitude of problems that my adult, non-nostalgic eyes could see quite clearly.
TV directors aren't known for their stylish camera skills or soliciting great performances from actors and Tsugunobu Kotani, who directed the Bermuda Depths as well as other Rankin/Bass junk, is no exception. It's clear the actors are often struggling for direction with Leigh McCloskey appearing totally lost in several scenes and Burl Ives going from holly-jolly, cheerful, old man to raving lunatic at the drop of a hat. To say that the acting is alternately strained and improvised is an understatement. In one scene, Carl Weathers wrestles with a fishing net, much like Martin Landau's Lugosi takes on an inanimate octopus in Ed Wood. I can just imagine Kotani's instructions to Weather's as 'Hey Carl, just jump in the water and pretend like that thing is killing you'. The scene should foster fear and suspense but it elicits only unintended humor as Weathers struggles mightily with a small portion of fishing net. In another blunder during a conversation on the bridge of a boat, two characters speak to each other through portholes even though they're in the same room. It looks ridiculous and was obviously done to pick up an interior shot without actually setting it up. Finally, for every nicely framed shot, there's a poorly angled one to match. Several times, only a corner of the boat can be seen and characters are often unintentionally blocked from view.

The special effects are a near disaster with Rankin/Bass obviously relying on Tsuburaya Studios to cover this area with the result being a lot of toy in bathtub shots.

The sad part is many of these shots are redundant and unnecessary. At one point, we see a long shot of the real boat which is followed needlessly by a shot of the not-nearly-matching toy boat. The editor could have chopped a lot of the effects shots and it would have actually improved on the movie.
The script, while not horrible, does contain characters that show up once and disappear like Ruth Attaway's voodoo-ish Delia. There is also the age-old McGuffin engine known as The Bermuda Triangle which is mentioned once as a catch-all explanation then dropped and forgotten.

But for all of the amateurish issues the film has, it still somehow manages a unique charm and haunting romantic quality that, coupled with it's unconventional ending, make it something special. Yes, there is a turtle vs helicopter fight that's inept and ridiculous, but there's also a haunting love story and a strong message about letting go of destructive obsessions that makes the movie a worthwhile watch.

Score 6.5/10

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Attic Dwelling Monster

Once upon a time, there was a brother and sister who lived on the American prairie...

As I continue to look at these modern day fairy tale/horror movies, I've noticed a similar story concept that seems to repeat itself in each tale. The condition of forced solitude, or even outright abandonment, has taken place in each of the previous three films I've posted on. In Jack Be Nimble, the brother and sister protagonists are first emotionally, then physically, abandoned by their biological mother. In Viy, a seminarian is forced to spend three nights alone in a church. In Kaun?, a woman is left at home alone with a serial killer on the prowl. The notions of abandonment and solitude are without a doubt amongst the most frightening and anxiety provoking conditions that humans have had to deal with throughout their existence. It should come as no surprise that they serve as fuel for fairy tales, horror stories, urban legends and such.

These conditions are explored yet again in Danny Daneau's 2008, low key, western, fairy tale, thriller The Attic Door, wherein two children are left alone in their remotely located, frontier farm in turn-of-the-century America. 

As the film opens, we see 12-year old Caroline has been left in charge of her younger brother, Darrell, along with the family's isolated farm while their parents are away having a baby. A list of chores has been posted for them to do as well as an admonition not to leave the farm due to the dangers outside of it. As the days pass, and their parents do not return, the children find something menacing is hiding behind the farm's boarded up attic door attempting to break free.

The immensity and remoteness of their location offers little hope for the brother and sister in terms of a safe haven. Indeed, when the unknown thing in the attic nearly gets out, the siblings retreat to a discarded covered wagon they have dubbed "The Fort".
Ultimately, Caroline and Darrell return to the house, but it appears only a matter of time before they must face what's in the attic.

The first time I watched the film, with its great rural setting, photography, deliberate pace and understated score, it brought to mind Terrance Malick's Days of Heaven. Although not as ambitious as that film, I was surprised at how great looking and well written The Attic Door was for a micro-budgeted ($200K) independent movie. Shot in Kanab, Utah, director Daneau and cinematographer Scott Uhlfelder take maximum advantage of the wide open, desolate bluffs and prairies not only for their natural beauty, but to juxtapose the children against this vast backdrop and accentuate their vulnerability and isolation.

The photography around the homestead is also quite good with single establishing shots doing wonders to create atmosphere and place.

Daneau, who co-wrote the film with Eric Ernst, wisely limits the dialogue and lets the excellent atmosphere do the talking. At the same time, the script is quite literate and felt much like a Henry James short story. The two child actors, Madison Davenport and Jake Johnson perform quite credibly with Davenport doing especially well in the more emotionally driven scenes. I wondered how much the ending twist affected their performances as it casts the characters in a completely different light. On my second viewing, I thought I saw some acting that spoke to the twist, but it could have been wishful thinking on my part. Finally, the sparse, understated piano and cello driven music by Kristin Øhrn Dyrud also adds a forlorn note to the proceedings without becoming over-cued or sting-like. I noticed the score come in unobtrusively a few times, but was pleased how often the film used silence as a counterpoint.

Ultimately, this is an odd little hybrid of western, drama and fairy tale that's more of a psychological mood piece than outright thriller or horror movie. Still, like many fairy tales, it is unsettling, sad and beautiful all at the same time while addressing the age old fears of abandonment and isolation.

Final score: 8/10

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Menacing Visitor

Once upon a time in India, a woman was visited by the oddest man...

When Christopher Lee hosted Saturday Night Live back in 1978, he explained that he no longer did horror films because of their diminished quality. He proceeded to show three fake trailers, performed by the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, as examples of the decline of modern day horror. The faux movies had such humorous titles as, The Island of Lost Luggage, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Rogers. The other fake trailer, The Thing That Wouldn't Leave, concerned a clueless houseguest, played by John Belushi, who had overstayed his welcome at a young couples home. As he obliviously ignored dropped hints he should leave and instead asked for more chips, a horrified housewife, played by Jane Curtain, screamed in terror. 

It's not really the most funny or terrifying premise in the world, but Bollywood director Ram Gopal Varma actually manages to wring humor, suspense and horror from the same concept in the 1999 Hindi thriller Kaun? (Who's There?).

The strikingly beautiful and perky Indian actress Urmila Matondkar plays a never-named, young woman who is apparently home alone with only her cat for company. Early on, a television news report of a recent murder committed by a serial killer in the vicinity causes the young woman anxiety which is subsequently amplified by the appearance of an unexpected and unwanted visitor.

Manoj Bajpai plays the clueless lost visitor, Sameer, who manages the near impossible feat of being obsequious, goofy and menacing all at the same time. It doesn't become obvious until near the end of the film whether Sameer's ingratiating plea of "Ma'am, Ma'am" is meant as the slightly servile begging of a stranded traveler, or the cat-and-mouse taunt of a serial killer. At times, the credibility of this character is stretched as when he exclaims he hates cats in one breath, then picks up the woman's cat and begins fawning over it. But, overall, Bajpai does a great job of making Sameer a harmless, cheese-sandwich-loving buffoon in one scene, and a dangerous menace in the next while still maintaining believability. To really appreciate Bajpai in this role, one need only see him in a more conventional movie like Satya where he quite credibly plays a savvy gangster leader.

Initially, the woman will not let Sameer into the house, despite his pleas and a steady downpour outside. Eventually though, he is allowed in and immediately turns up the creepiness. Things get more complicated and suspenseful when yet another uninvited house guest subsequently shows up.

The ending stretches the plot a little beyond reason and nearly changes the story to an urban legend-type fairy tale, but it was a large part of the fun for me. With all the previous twists, I knew one more was coming and it did. Some will have issues with it, but I liked it despite the associated logic problems.

Besides the credible acting, there are a couple of other elements that help the film immensely. One is the economical length (by Bollywood standards) of 100 minutes which serves as more than enough time to introduce the characters, set the mood and execute the twists. The short runtime does come at the expense of the usual obligatory musical numbers save for the opening and closing title song which is actually a nice little hip-hop-like ditty that fits the film's tone. Another aspect that boosts the film is the set decoration and design. With only three characters (outside of a dream sequence crowd) the film invariably would carry a stage-like feel, but the incredible set design and decor vest it with a very photographic, cinema friendly atmosphere. The woman's house is filled to capacity with stunning art and furnishings and it really gives the camera and viewer a lot of colorful things to look at when the story slows. The beautiful interior is accentuated by the constant, steady rain outside that can be seen on the windows or creating shadows on the walls. 

Overall, Kaun? is an aesthetically pleasing, well constructed and evenly acted thriller that also brings some humor courtesy of Manoj Bajpai's performance. The story is not the most original and maybe has one too many twists and the music has the typically overbearing horror cues but the film is otherwise executed so well that these minor flaws are easily overlooked. 

Final Score 7.5/10